As we wait not so patiently for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we’re getting a little antsy. This is understandable; the law was due for an overhaul almost…
As we wait not so patiently for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we’re getting a little antsy. This is understandable; the law was due for an overhaul almost four years ago and probably won’t get it for another year and a half at least. And even when it comes, it may arrive only in piecemeal form like the new legislation approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee to encourage more development of high-quality charter schools.
Just as the notion of consequential accountability seems to be losing favor, several sharp arguments in support have recently appeared. Joel Klein published a beyond-no-nonsense appeal for accountability in The Atlantic. My colleague, RiShawn Biddle has written recently about the need to maintain and expand accountability. And Sandy Kress, the former Bush administration education point man who crafted No Child, has written a towering 50-page argument (along with Stephanie Zechmann, and J. Matthew Schmitten) in the Harvard Law Journal.
As accountability seems to be losing ground in the popular debate, articulate advocates are sharpening their swords. This argument could have been settled several years ago with a timely reauthorization but it wasn’t. During this awkward legislative hiatus, we’ve been wondering anxiously how things would fall out. Like Shakespeare’s distraught Prince of Denmark, we notice fraying at the edges of the raveled sleeve of care and ponder the question: To be or NCLB?
History in the (Un)Making
Pro or con, it’s hard to argue the historic importance of No Child. However imperfect the law may be, its passage marked the first time in our nation’s history that we committed to educating every child. Regardless of how the law is changed, we must not waiver in this commitment.
All children in America must be educated to reach their full potential. All children must have reasonable choices of desirable schools, engaging instruction by highly-qualified teachers, mastery of relevant and essential curriculum, and the support required to pursue meaningful life opportunities in school and out.
Every legislator in the House and Senate should find no trouble agreeing with this, nor should any of the rest of us. Piecemeal or wholesale, tear it down as many implore, or patch it up as some suggest, any changes to No Child must continue to satisfy five foundational principles of reform:
- Good learning. Every child educated to meet the challenges of today’s world.
- Good schools. A reasonable choice of desirable environments in which to learn
- Good teachers. A highly-qualified instructor in every classroom.
- Good curriculum. Mastery of relevant and essential knowledge and skills.
- Good lives. The pursuit of meaningful life opportunities for all.
We can argue endlessly about federal requirements that are too loose or too tight, about the potential of local control, or more charter schools, or the use of Value Added Measurement to determine teacher employment, or the equity of competitive grant programs. In the end, however, we either stand for the principles of reform or we do not.
No Child isn’t perfect. But it has its principles, too—principles worth supporting even if the means by which we support them change.
Turning Our Homework in Late
We’ve all been there; we’ve all put off an important assignment and then hoped somehow we could turn it in late without consequence. But even when our teachers let us off the hook, we forgot about the hook we’d put ourselves on: all that worrying when we could just as easily have been working.
Something like this has happened with No Child as its reauthorization has been pushed farther and farther back into oblivion.
First, as the anxiety grows, people are focusing more intensely than ever on the parts of the law they don’t like. As a result, the legislation’s reputation is being distorted. To read the media today, one would think that No Child was akin to Plessy v. Fergusson in its disastrous denial of opportunity for kids and its detriment to our education system as a whole. True enough, No Child is far from perfect. But it isn’t all bad. Not even close.
Second, as NCLB moves on, it moves on untended (or simply waived). The federal government isn’t really working it anymore because they have little to work it with. Secretary Duncan’s recent “Plan B” threat to push Congress into action, or to force states to swallow a bitter pill of initiatives in exchange for blanket immunity from 2014 prosecution, seems more like a desperate stunt than a shrewd strategy.
Finally, into the void of legislative leadership, many issues and personalities have rushed in. States have taken measures into their own hands with changes to labor laws. Philanthropists and business leaders see extraordinary opportunities for influence during a period where federal influence is non-existent. Individuals, too, are making a big splash as they battle each other to be education’s next Superman.
None of this is inherently bad. But it is inherently chaotic. And it is probably this chaos, and the feelings of uncertainty we experience in chaotic situations, that is at least partially responsible for the sharply negative turn in the quality of discourse we have in our country right now with regard to education. Do we really hate each other so much? Or do we hate the fact that we have so little leadership from Washington at this time?
Death By Double Fault
The real trouble is that we may be dealing with two problems instead of just one: the problem of fixing No Child and the problem of fixing the argument over fixing NCLB.
To knee-jerk detractors of No Child, and local control ideologues, this odd turn of events couldn’t have turned out better. The longer we go without reauthorization, the less popular No Child becomes. The less popular it becomes, the less any administration will seek to retain the law’s most powerful elements.
At the same time, as recent writings by influential people indicate, the original argument for consequential accountability may be just as valid today as it was ten years ago.
No Child was not perfect in its original version (and I haven’t heard even the folks who wrote it suggest that it was.) Bundling a great number of factors into the single “index of quality” called AYP was probably not the best way to go. This is, however, easily fixed. Was the 2014 deadline unrealistic? Not in theory, but certainly in practice. Disgruntled states, laboring under what they felt were an unfunded mandate, engaged in sullen foot-dragging. Most were unrealistic in thinking they could get their schools moving without actually asking them to move or supporting them very much in sustaining momentum.
Here again, small changes to No Child could take care of this problem. Did the high-quality teacher provision make sense? Not as implemented because it focused on credentials instead of quality. But ten years later, we know that credentials aren’t as valuable as we once thought. We also know a lot more about how to identify quality teachers.
These insights add up logically to small, smart changes we could make to No Child in a thoughtful reauthorization. But it appears that we’re not going to get small, smart changes. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that even after years have passed since the law was due to be reauthorized, we still don’t know what we’re going to get.
To be or NCLB? That truly is the question. No Child is a well-defined path with much to recommend it if one removes ideological blinders and reflects a bit about what pre-accountability schooling was like and what working in schools is like today. But in the absence of strong federal leadership, ideologues are sucking all the air out of the room.
To be or NCLB? It seems the answer won’t be No Child. But we don’t know what it will be either. Much like Hamlet, we’re left in a quandary: to sleep perchance to dream; to knit up those raveled sleeves of care if we can. When it comes to No Child, our government has fallen asleep. And when it wakes up, it isn’t clear at all that our kids will wake up to something better.